Being observed can be one of the most nerve wracking experiences that we go through as ESL teachers. We speak with TEFL teacher trainer, manager and serial observer Matt Courtois about what you (as a teacher) can do to survive (and possibly even learn from) your next observation. Essential listening for anyone on a CertTESOL, CELTA, DipTESOL, DELTA or any course with a teaching practice component.
Watch Amy Cuddy's TED Talk, "Your body language may shape who you are" as mentioned by Ross
Surviving Your Next Observed Lesson - Transcription
Tracy Yu: Welcome to the "TEFL Training Institute podcast," the bite‑sized TEFL podcast for teachers, trainers, and managers.
Ross Thorburn: Hi, everyone.
Tracy: Today we've got our special guest, Matt Courtois.
Ross: Hi, Matt.
Matt Courtois: Hey, how's it going?
Ross: Good to have you on.
Matt: Yeah, thank you.
Tracy: Finally, we've got Matt on the show.
Ross: Matt, do you want to say something very quickly about who you are and what you do?
Matt: Yeah, so I work for a large online education company. I manage the training team there.
Ross: Great. I wanted to tell you guys about something that happened to me a couple weeks ago. For my job, I had to film a lesson. It was the first class I taught in a little while, and before, I was so nervous.
I was having trouble sleeping the night before because I was worried so much about what I was going to do in my lesson. It really got me empathizing with how teachers feel when they get observed when they teach. All of us got blasé about observing people.
When I was just filming myself, there was no one else even in the room. I was really, really, really nervous about it. I thought what we could do today was talk about, if you're a teacher, how can you survive your next observed class?
What are some things that you might do differently when you're being observed to what you would do normally?
Tracy: We've got three parts. The first part is what can teachers do before the observation, and the second?
Ross: What can you do in the observation, and finally, Matt?
Matt: What can you do after the observation?
What can teachers do to prepare for an observed lesson?
Ross: Before the lesson, I don't think we need to talk so much about planning. We have done a whole podcast on that. What are some other things maybe out with the plan that you think teachers need to do to prepare for an observed class?
Matt: I was thinking about classroom things that you can do before the lesson. There's such easy things you can do. Getting the seating out of that lecture‑style seating, and just put it into a horseshoe, like know how many students you're going to have. Have your board work planned, have a nice layout prepared.
Ross: Section off the board before you come in?
Tracy: Yeah, or something really basic. Check the marker, is it working, and the lights, air conditioner, computer.
Ross: Computer, projector because in a regular class, if those things break down, it's no big deal. If they break down in an observed class, it can be a disaster. You've got an hour to show your stuff, and you spend five minutes of it looking for a new marker, then that can be quite disastrous.
For me, one of the most important things a teacher can do before the class is know what's expected of them. Pretty much every time I've observed has been slightly different standards or a slightly different form.
If you're being observed, you need to make sure you know exactly what you're being assessed on. Some places I've worked, it was like at the beginning of the class you have to write the aim on the board.
If you don't do that, you get marks off, or at the beginning of the class, you have to go over the homework with the students, and you have to set homework at the end. There has to be interactions between the students in the class.
Matt: In my company now, I spent a long time creating the rubric to observe teachers on. It's true of every company. Your observer is there to make sure you're meeting those standards.
Ross: In an ideal world, they should have sent that to you beforehand, but if they haven't, then you should probably ask for that, and find out what exactly is expected of you.
Matt: That's a fair question. Most observers would probably [laughs] give it to you, it's not a surprise. It shouldn't be.
Ross: For a lot of courses, and even when I was a manager as well, a standard procedure was before the class, the observer meets with the teacher. They say, "OK. Can you tell me what you've got planned today? Can you tell me about what's in the plan?"
Do you guys have any tips for things for teachers in that pre‑observation meeting? What you would tell them to do or not to do?
Matt: In the lesson itself, as an observer, I like to see teachers responding to the students who are in the classroom and not sticking to the lesson plan exactly as they prepared for it.
You're teaching the students in the room, you're not just going through the lesson plan. In that pre‑lesson discussion, it's great if the teacher can show they have spent time thinking about those individuals who they'll be teaching, if possible.
I'm thinking about those questions. When I'm asking questions of the observees before the lesson, a lot of times people view it as accusations, like I'm trying to steer them away from doing this, and I'm really not. I don't think any observer does that.
Ross: I remember getting that advice as a new manager, "When you have that chat, don't freak the person out and question them." I would guess that's quite a common thing.
Matt: You're saying it was my fault?
Ross: In that situation, you don't want to start second‑guessing yourself in the 11th hour, right before you go in. Probably best to stick with what you've spent time preparing.
What should teachers do during an observed lesson?
Ross: For during a lesson, it's easy to just talk about all the things you should do in any regular lesson. One of the biggest differences for being observed is you're likely to be nervous.
One of the problems of being nervous is you end up talking faster, you end up talking more. What are some ways around that do you think?
Tracy: Standing in front of the mirror, and see how their body language is. It's definitely going to affect how the student is going to ‑‑ or the observer ‑‑ perceive you as a teacher. If you feel nervous, maybe you can just take deep breath.
Make sure that you break the long sentences into small sentences. Always remember you pause between different [inaudible 6:40] . Give yourself a few seconds to think about what you are going to talk about, what you are going to say to your students.
Ross: For me, I try and do, in those situations where I know I'm going to be nervous, I do the power poses in the bathroom. Did you guys do that?
Everyone's seen the TED talk of that, where you stand in the Superman pose or Superwoman pose, or whatever it is. You try and get more testosterone through doing that.
Matt: I've tried it out. It might work for you, Ross. It's not my thing. [laughs]
Ross: You're sitting like that now, so...
Ross: I always find, for me, that helps with the nerves. One of the main problems that teachers have in classes is, we always say, "Teach the students, don't teach the plan."
You want to be responsive to the learners. That's so much harder if you're being observed and you've spent a lot of time on a plan. You can feel really invested whereas, normally, you plan something and it's like your shopping list on a bit of paper.
Matt: The lesson you observed me on, Tracy, in the dip, I remember. I planned all the stuff, I got pictures of my students and stuff like that. A lot of them were absent from the lesson, and I just went with the lesson. I was frustrated, because I'd spent so many hours working on this lesson plan because the way I reacted to this change was not good.
I don't mind if students don't get everything or if an activity doesn't work, but if the teacher reacts to that poorly in the lesson ‑‑ if they're visibly upset about it ‑‑ that's not good. [laughs]
Ross: I find that often happens with stuff breaking. I can remember doing it myself as a trainee, showing this video, and the video stuttered and didn't play, then it threw me off. Remember afterwards it was like, "How did the lesson go?" I was like, "Oh, the video!"
I find so often when you ask teachers afterwards, "How did the lesson go?" and they're like, whatever it is, "Oh, my PowerPoint didn't work!" You're like, "As the observer, I hardly noticed that."
Those seem to be the things that teachers often fixate on. The tip is to not worry about those things. They're probably not as big of a deal as you think they are and just move on.
Like you say, if you let it get to you, and you show your frustration, that's probably likely to have a much bigger and a much worse effect than the actual thing not working in the first place.
Matt: The worst thing you can do is [laughs] say anything remotely aggressive in ESL classroom...
Ross: Again, that's probably something you might not normally do, but because you're under bit more stressed and pressured, then you're probably more likely to do that than normal maybe, right?
What can teachers do after an observed lesson?
Ross: Let's talk a bit about after the lesson. The standard thing you're expected to do after a class is, usually, they'll give you some feedback, but often they'll ask you some questions first about how the class went, what you might do differently. Any things that you guys would advise teachers to say or not to say?
Matt: Again, from the perspective of the observer, having asked reflective questions to trainees before, my thought going in to that as the observer is that I'm trying to train the teacher to think about their lessons and reflect on their lessons a little bit.
I'm not trying to get the teachers to say, "This was the best lesson ever, the worst lesson ever." I'm trying to get them to think about it, and teach them how to do that after every lesson. The teacher is responsive to that, and is trying to do this reflective practice stuff, that's what I'm looking for.
Tracy: I would say care about the quantity less than the quality of the things that you felt did really well or didn't work very well. For example, you might have, I don't know, 10, or 20, or even 30, 40 different points on the observation form or anything.
You really don't have to cover all of them, it's impossible. You always can find something to work on. Just look at a couple things that you want to talk about in depth.
Like Matt just mentioned, being reflective, not just go, "Oh, I didn't do really well, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, until 10." We want to hear. Point one, why it didn't work, how students reacted to it, what would you change?
Ross: The key point there is prioritizing what were the most important things. You can always find things that went wrong.
Another point leads into that is if you have ‑‑ and pretty much usually you do have ‑‑ some time between the end of the lesson and the chat afterwards. It's so important to use that time to take notes, and to decide what the things you are going to speak about.
I see a lot of teachers who just, after a class, just sit and hang out with the students or something, or if the lesson's running over, they'll just keep teaching. You're like, "That's such an important time to spend and take some notes and get ready."
One other thing I wanted to talk about was the cycle coming right round, which is usually after you've been observed and you reflect, and you might write your journal. You probably get some feedback from the tutor.
At some point, you get observed again, maybe by the same tutor or the same manager. My final point on this ‑‑ with the squaring the circle ‑‑ is that when you come to teach the next class, that you look back to the notes from the previous class on what you got told that you can improve.
Matt: In a perfect world, you're looking back at those notes periodically before the next observation [inaudible 12:26] . These are skills that you're actually developing in your everyday teaching rather than just for observations.
Ross: Did you have a system for that after you did get that feedback?
Matt: I don't have a system. Have you ever heard of this, there's a psychological term called rumination. They associate it with depression. This is not a cry for help.
Matt: It actually refers to a cow having multiple stomachs, and that it digests food several times. I find that I have this habit whenever I receive feedback ‑‑ especially critical feedback ‑‑ I go through that again, and again, and again. It's good for improving yourself. It's bad, maybe, for depressive people or whatever.
Matt: For a teacher, you should be critical of yourself sometimes. You should be thinking about ways you can improve, having that second opinion of that observer and what they had said, if you can ruminate on that, it's really helpful.
Top Tips for Surviving Your Next Observed Lesson
Ross: Quick wrap‑up. What's your top tip for a teacher that's about to get observed tomorrow?
Matt: It infuriated me when I had a manager who gave me this tip after an observation, but I actually like the tip. Be yourself. Be comfortable. If you're funny, be funny. However it is that you need to relax and be yourself, do that.
Tracy: Just relax if it didn't go really well and just look into it. See what you can do and what you need to improve. How about you, Ross?
Ross: We didn't really touch on this earlier, but it would just be know the one thing that you want the students to get out of the class.
Tracy: Matt, thank you very much for coming to our podcast today.
Matt: It was my pleasure, Tracy.
Tracy: Thanks, everybody. Thanks for listening.
Ross: Bye, everyone.
Matt: See you.
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Transcription by CastingWord